This Month

Meddling with the subject of pets is a touchy business. If an editorial door opens for a house cat, in streak all the passengers of Noah’s Ark. Dogs, cavies, gibbons, crowd the incoming-mail baskets. More cats arrive ready to make themselves at home. It would not be difficult, one gathers, to set up a regular department on skunks or English bull terriers, ocelots or the rose-breasted grosbeak. Fond proprietors would all come forward and a fancy running into the thousands would be disclosed.

No companion has turned up so far for John Moore’s pet hedgehog (November), and it is hard to foresee how many snake charmers will run down the aisle to wring the hand of A. B.

Guthrie, Jr. (page 87) — possibly a mamba-lover or two and a comradely greeting from The Water Moccasin Club of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Others — the people who cry oogh! faugh!ee-e-e-ee! when anyone mentions snakes — will object: they don’t believe in snakes and snakes are not a good subject at all. We rejoin that reading about pets is one of the inescapable disciplines of life and that a sinuous, bead-eyed, horrible, disgusting snake is no less prepossessing than some of the animals paraded on a leash in the city of Boston.

The pet story is a highly stylized job of writing: its beginning is prescribed by long custom; its midsection is drawn from enthusiastic anecdote; it ends like a Greek tragedy John Moore found his analogy in Macbeth — with death, murder, and destruction (although some parrots and the Galapagos tortoise are said to live for years and years). No matter what kind of pet is the subject, the stories themselves are remarkably interchangeable. One simply leaves a blank for the given species of pet, be it platypus or puff adder, and ho for a quire of foolscap and a three-cent stamp!

“My Pet Blank” naturally begins with the very first arrival of the blank. No one in the family had dreamed it was coming and they were all thinking about something else — Father about the bills, Sis her dress for the Freshman Prom, and Junior his bubble gum — when suddenly they were all aware of a faint scratching that had been going on at the back door (never the front door). The pros and cons of whether it was really a noise or just something they imagined are good for about a page of manuscript, and Dad finally settles it by stamping out to the back door and flinging it open.

At first, he sees nothing — looking out into the dark from the brightly lighted room. Dad is usually the bumbler in “My Pet Blank.” He has no idea, at this stage, of a manuscript in the making. Dad can build a certain amount of low-grade suspense by slamming the door and going back to his checkbook, but you and

I know that the faint scratching noise will recur.

It has to. Twice is enough for this sort of filler and

Dad had better strike pay dirt without too much fooling around.

“Mamma! Sis! Junior!” he calls, and they go tearing out to look. What they find is a tiny, bedraggled, half-starved blank that, can’t be a day over six weeks old. It looks up at them appealingly.

The next major hubbub has to do with the baby blank’s physical condition; the little thing is in bad shape; something broken, perhaps, with implications of cruel neighborhood boys or heartless motorists. Family uproar follows when Dad proposes to put the blank out; of its misery. But it looks up at them appealingly. Not a chance. Outvoted, Dad is soon carrying on the classic medicine-dropper and warm-milk routine while the others make a bed of cotton in a candy box where the blank will be snug behind the stove. (The family must always keep a spare candy box on hand because they re going to need another to bury the blank in — save for parrots and tortoises as noted above — at the final curtain.)

They worry about it all night and when they come down the next morning the blank is not there. Hubbub, lamentations, tearful search. They discover the blank suddenly: it has climbed into a saucepan and can’t get out. The blank is chipper, merry, hardly the pathetic foundling they rescued from the storm the night before. (I forgot to say that these visitations are always accompanied by snow or rain and winds of gale strength.) “It wants to play!” screams Sis. And right here let’s pin it down: there is nothing quite so playful as a six-week-old blank. It looks up at them appealingly.

Even Dad comes to love the blank. He sat up with it half the night when it ate whatever it is that blanks should not eat. At the end, when the spare candy box makes its inexorable appearance — those cruel neighborhood boys again — Dad tries to cheer everybody up. “Never mind,” says he. “We’ll all miss the blank, but I saw a mighty fine hyena pup in a pet shop yesterday.”

And that, the pet story concludes — or is it the next one just beginning?—is how the family got Robby, the winsome young hyena. Soon after, he was lost for a whole month, but one night there was a faint scratching at the back door. . . . C. W. M.